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We have been inventing fictions for ages — literally. Cave paintings tell stories; nursery rhymes celebrate black sheep and twinkling stars; and religious texts draw upon hundreds of stories to get their messages across. Fiction exalts the imagination. It is the only human act that can defy physics to create something out of nothing, and never lose momentum. But it’s not all play: fiction helps us process the world around us, in a medium that is slower and quieter than a daily headline; more passionate than a speech, more intimate than a history book. Fiction allows you to fall in love with men, women, and monsters from the past, and anticipate the world’s fate in days to come. Fiction is like yoga: it strengthens you, makes you limber, and helps you breathe better. Because like yoga, the many “stances” in fiction take practice to perfect: Should the story be told in first person? In the present tense? What is the “occasion for the telling” — the very reason for the story itself? How do the themes manifest at a sentence level? Who is the audience. Can this narrator be trusted? This combination of decisions, made painstakingly, page after page, create a universe about which the reader intuitively understands the rules, and in which he lives until the last page. Fiction is time travel, therapy, and discovery. You can explore many authors — including Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Herman Melville, Nadine Gordimer, and Salman Rushdie — to start to understand the power of fiction.
Take this story, that is just six words long: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
This piece has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although it may not have been entirely his idea. Whoever the originator, the punch here is in the brevity. With six specially selected words, an entire story is begun and ended. What’s for sale? Shoes. Whose shoes? A baby’s. What condition? Brand new. Why are they for sale? Well… And who’s selling them? It must be…
It is our reaction to these six simple words which shows how fiction flexes its muscles. Why do we read this and catch our breath? Why is our mind reacting to the made up sale of a made up baby’s shoes? Because we’ve already begun to empathize with whoever is selling these shoes, even though this story reveals nothing about its characters and their emotions. Our swiftly reached conclusion about what happened in this story shows just how quickly we imagine, extrapolate, assume, project, understand, and interpret — and I’m not just talking about literature.
Now consider Moby Dick, a 700+ page novel written by Herman Melville in 1851, at a time when literature was supposed to be moralistic, puritanical, and noble. Melville didn’t enjoy such patronizing prose, and sought refuge in the madness of nature. Moby Dick is a story about a sea captain whose sole mission is to hunt down a particular whale (named Moby Dick), and kill him. Over 700 pages Melville philosophizes about life using ocean metaphors, and each line is more scintillating than the next. He begins with a very specific restlessness that get his character out to sea in the first place:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
This paragraph appears on the first page of Moby Dick, and immediately apparent to the reader is how fidgety and anxious the narrator, Ishmael, is. He clearly wants to get out and go somewhere, do something! His mind is muddy, his mood is spoiled, he’s picking fights and encountering death, and it’s become too much for him. So what next? What would you do? Have you been in this situation before, where your mind is racing, your toes are twitching, and you don’t know what to do about it? What finally gets you out of bed and out of the house? What drives you to make your next move? What are the stakes, and how high are they? Melville jumps right into his narrator’s panicked brain and shows us exactly how we feel when restlessness sets in, and with deft and masterful sentences, makes very clear what Ishmael’s motivations are.
If the character Humbert Humbert had to begin his story in the same way as Ishmael, he might have said, “Whenever I see Lolita, then I swoon with desire.” Anyone recognize these names? They come from Lolita, the infamous novel by Vladimir Nabokov about a pedophile named Humbert Humbert, and the object of his affection. See how he describes her on page 1:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Nabokov was unsure about this book, but his wife Vera insisted he publish it; she understood him better than anyone, and he dedicated every single one of his books to her. Read and re-read the sentences above, and observe how the name of the fictional character becomes something to taste, chew, and swallow. Each nickname carries its own significance, and Nabokov’s narrator cleverly — and creepily! — shows us each version of the girl with a different nickname.
We use nicknames all the time, for people we love, for people we don’t like, for our peers, our teachers, our spouses, and our children. Think for a moment about how those nicknames have come into being, how long they’ve lasted, how much they’ve changed with each chapter of that person’s life. Look at the petnames in the passage above; in just a few sentences, Nabokov shows us just a few glimpses of this young girl but immediately you can picture her in her uniform, standing in one sock, being adored. Nicknames are gestures of intimacy, whether we acknowledge them as such, Nabokov reminds us of how intimately humans can be with each other (creepily or not!).
South African author and Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer created several characters in her lifetime, many of whom reflected her views and confusions about apartheid. Her 1979 book The Burger’s Daughter about an activist family was initially banned, but found its way to Nelson Mandela’s cell at the Robben Island prison where he was deeply touched by the story. He wrote to her saying as much, and after he was released, they became close friends. Such is the power of fiction, that a black male activist and a white female author can connect through an imagined world that transcends a reality to create a new one.
Here’s how The Burger’s Daughter begins:
Among the group of people waiting at the fortress was a schoolgirl in a brown and yellow uniform holding a green eiderdown quilt and, by the loop at its neck, a red hot-water bottle. Certain buses used to pass that way then and passengers looking out will have noticed a schoolgirl. Imagine, a schoolgirl: she must have somebody inside. Who are all those people, anyway? Even from the top of a bus, lurching on past as the lights go green, the group would not have looked like the usual prison visitor, passive and self-effacing about the slope of municipal grass.
We discussed this excerpt for its visual power. Look at the words that are repeated — schoolgirl — and the words that are rotated — several different colors. Look at the word choice — fortress, lurching, and municipal. Listen to the voice telling us the story, that seems immediately dismissive of this school girl in brown and yellow, holding green and red. Many colors, but no mention of the girl’s skin color, and yet perhaps it is obvious without Gordimer having to say so.
Ten years later, Salman Rushdie introduced readers to a kind of storytelling using words that were obvious to some, and oblivious to others. In 1981 he wrote Midnight’s Children, which won several awards and put him on the map. See how he begins his children’s book Luka and the Fire of Life, written in 2010 for his second son:
There was once, in the city of Kahani, in the land of Alifbay, a boy named Luka who had two pets, a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear, which meant that whenever he called out, “Dog!” the bear waddled up amiably on his hind legs, and when he shouted, “Bear!” the dog bounded towards him, wagging his tail.
For some readers, “the city of Kahani” will make them smile; for others, it is but an interesting name for an unknown city. Rushdie was always playing with words and hiding meaning in his sentences for a chosen subset of readers. No wonder his books elicited such strong reactions from the public when they were discovered!
This passage also demonstrates how playful and exciting children’s literature can be, not just for the reader but for the author. If an author as scholarly and worldly as Salman Rushdie chooses to write books for children, then surely the genre is worth exploring. Since the 17th century, books for children have evolved mightily: they began with Biblical stories that imparted strong god-fearing messages, then moved into fairytales that were lighter but still moralistic, then acknowledged a child’s ability to imagine and believe, then celebrated superhuman fictional characters such as Superman and Spiderman, and today empower more ‘human’ fictional characters such as Harry Potter with similarly magic powers, while placing them in very real settings.
Children’s literature brings us back to the boy who narrates Moby Dick, and back to the baby shoes that were never worn: it shows us how quickly and naturally we, as readers, empathize with characters, and especially with young ones. Fiction has the power to stop time, reverse its direction, construct new planets, get rid of the need for oxygen, remain monolingual in thought, and so much more.
Aditi Sriram has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in New York City. Prior to that, she received her BA from Columbia University, where she studied Applied Mathematics and Economics.
Currently Aditi teaches College Writing courses at SUNY Purchase, and is an editor at Guernica Magazine in New York City. She has directed writing camps at Yale, Brown and Berkeley University. She writes for several publications, based out of New York City, Delhi and Chennai, and worked at the publishing firm W.W. Norton & Company in 2012.
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